Barbarians' spirit is alive and well
December 3, 2008
Team mates and rivals - South Africa winger Bryan Habana poses with Wales speedster Shane Williams following the historic clash with the Wallabies at Wembley © Getty Images
Absorbing. Bruising. Entertaining. If you thought the autumn international season came to an end last weekend you would be wrong. Australia edged out the Barbarians 18-11 in an enthralling encounter of Test-match intensity at Wembley Stadium this evening.
The first rugby union match at the new home of English football may not have been in the tradition of free-scoring Barbarians clashes of the past but the physicality of this game left you in no doubt about how seriously it was being taken by the two sides. This was no end-of-year showpiece, nor a glorified parade to fill the coffers - instead we were witness to a full-on battle.
Make no mistake, the Wallabies prepared for this clash as if it were a Test match and after an 80-minute onslaught from a Barbarians side that fancied their chances against their injury-ravaged opponents, they will certainly know they have been in a game. But to their credit they gave as good as they got.
Tries from Lote Tuqiri and Lachie Turner may have given them the edge on the scoreboard but their victory was built on a superb defensive showing that shackled the most potent Barbarians side imaginable.
But this was just as much about the celebration as it was the rugby. And despite defeat the essence of Barbarians rugby is alive and well - and not just because 43,600 supporters braved the cold to witness the game. The star-studded Barbarians' willingness to throw the ball around brought the crowd to their feet in the stadium while their acknowledgement of the significance of the occasion brought them new fans.
History is such an important part of what this game stands for and what unites players around the globe. It is those shared experiences and traditions - whether it's being buried at the bottom of a scrum on a winter's Saturday afternoon or re-counting every pass from Gareth Edwards' glorious effort for the Baa-Baas against the All Blacks in '73 - that are at the heart of the game we love and must be nurtured.
For the Barbarians in particular the emphasis is on showcasing everything good about the game - passion, flair, courage and brotherhood - to ensure the future development at all levels.
Some will always question whether the amateur-rooted ethos of the Barbarians has a role to play in the game today - but try telling that to the thousands of fans that flock to watch them and the sport's biggest names who go out of their way to accept an invite from them. OK, access to leading names for high-profile clashes such as this may become increasingly difficult with the on and off-field demands placed upon the elite - but such is the draw of the Barbarians, most will find a way of pulling on the famous black and white hoops.
One look at the Baa-Baas line-up would tell you how highly the 118-year-old club is regarded. A Who's Who of international rugby was on show with the likes of Richie McCaw, John Smit and George Gregan all making their Barbarians bow and a host of Rugby World Cup winners completing the supporting cast.
One week they're trying to take each other's heads off on the international stage - the next they're room mates (McCaw and Smit). And there is only one place this happens - with the Barbarians.
Mixed in with them were Baa-baas veterans such as Jerry Collins and Mark Regan, who famously defied his club to lead the Barbarians against South Africa last year and was subsequently hit with a fine. Such is the power of the world's most famous club that prides itself on having "no ground, no clubhouse, no entry fee, and no subscription".
Their attention to detail is also worthy of praise. Little touches like the Barbarians forsaking their usual "club socks" rule for those of Cornwall as a tribute to the county's place in the 1908 Olympic final underlines once again that importance of tradition.
"We did highlight the values of what it means to be a Barbarian," revealed Barbarians coach Jake White - another newcomer to the Barbarians but a keen student of the game.
At times there was perhaps a little too much passion - a stray elbow from Australia's Quade Cooper was spotted by former Italian international Federico Pucciarello who promptly dragged him through an advertising hoarding. And referee Chris White stuck to another tradition by opting to punish them both with a quiet word.
As for the action, those hoping for flair were left wanting and what little there was came from the Wallabies, who were by far the more polished of the two sides. The best examples of slick handling, invention and execution came from Australia. The Barbarians cannot be faulted for their effort but too many times they looked every bit a side that had been together three days - loose passes, mis-communication and poor tactical kicking - even drawing boos from the crowd that are normally saved for the win-at-all-costs opponents.
In the end sheer will kept them in the contest and had Francois Steyn brought his kicking boots things may have been different. He failed to convert Jerry Collins' try and then missed a late penalty that could have sealed the game - perhaps the Barbarians' gods deemed a kick was no way for a side of theirs to win a game?
Post-game the question marks were raised about the pitch that worryingly shredded at scrum time and injuries to props Matt Dunning (Achilles) and Sekope Kepu (torn pectoral) suggested cause for concern ahead of any future rugby clash at Wembley.
And so to another Barbarians tradition - the legendary post-match celebrations where friendships across nations are cemented over a beer or ten. Would their skipper Smit be leading the post-match festivities? "I'm new to this," he said, "I'll do what I'm told."
Win, lose or draw, the Barbarians can quite rightly lay claim to being the guardians of the game and for as long as they royally entertain they will have my support and deserve yours too.